Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Mary saw ...

Easter 3-23-2008 St. Paul’s

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118 Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

How did Mary Magdalene have the energy even to get out of bed on that Easter Day?

What could possibly have been worse, than to witness what she had witnessed just two days before? Her community was scattered and shattered. Her news of a vandalized tomb brought a few of them running – imagine this as one more shock, one more ghastly realization that the powers of death reached even beyond the grave, continuing to defile the body of their beloved friend. The men all leave, go their separate ways; only Mary stays behind, grief-stricken, exhausted, a woman with nothing left, no defenses, no hopes, no strength.

In a wonderful book by Studs Terkel, a collection of interviews with ordinary people, Hope Never Dies, I came across the words of Ed Chambers, a community organizer. He describes his life, influenced by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, his work trying to make communities safer, healthier – to encourage people that they had the power within themselves to make their own lives better. He also described how hard this work had gotten:

"I’m a little bit discouraged, but I’m not quitting, I’m not giving up. … The purpose of life isn’t truth; the purpose of life is meaning. The struggle of meaning that keeps you going, and a hope that you’re about to get something greater than anything you’ve got. … What keeps me going is that I realized, sometime in my 40s or early 50s, I couldn’t just dig down inside myself and pump it out like in my 30s. Then I realized that I got my energy for this work from other people, so the self must stay in connection with others, new others, others that have more talent and more vision and more power than you have. That energizes you and keeps you going. Without that you ossify. You can call it what you want. You can call it community, you can call it necessity. You’ve got to be in relationship with real people." [i]

Way back, 2000 years ago, at that first Easter, there must have been some idea, some hope, that God indeed had the power to bring about the resurrection of the dead. Right there in the text: “… for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Indeed, the hope of resurrection was something floating around religious thought at the time – around Jewish people tired of exile and persecution and occupation and corruption and taxation and struggle. Resurrection was an idea that the whole community would rise again on the last day – would be renewed and reconstituted at the end of time, as a community of justice, of God’s justice. Not just I would be resurrected on the last day, but we – and not just our spirits or our good wills, but our whole bodies. Us. All of us. Every part of us. And every part of the community, of the household of God – and after Mary’s discovery that not only was the tomb empty but that Jesus himself stood there in the garden with her – we now understand resurrection as the restoration of the Body of Christ – his real body, and our real bodies: the first fruits that are revealed.

It’s hard to talk about this in a way that makes it real, which takes me back to the words of that community organizer. His experience underscores for me that this whole resurrection business is not about the “individual” but about the “us” – the collective – the communal – about all of humanity. The reality of human life is no, we can’t go it alone. We certainly try – witness the scattered disciples, Mary going to the tomb to weep alone.

But the reality of the resurrection life is that life is communal, that we are no longer alone, that life as God intended it included you and you and you and you and all of us, restored, whole, hopeful, a whole creation renewed.

The powers of death want to keep this reality from us. Jesus died on the cross. But the power of God proves that all of that isolation and loneliness is the lie. The powers of death have done their worst. With the resurrection of Jesus, the body, the community is restored. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Christ is risen.

[i] P.231, Ed Chambers in Studs Terkel, Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times (New York: The New Press, 2003)

Monday, March 17, 2008

With palms before him went ...

We have a new look to our church - the altar in the midst. Palm Sunday we processed around it all. The chaos and confusion and noise of the procession contrasting with the chaos and confusion and silence of the cross.

Palm Sunday March 16, 2008 St. Paul’s Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16 Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11, 26:14-27:66

Today, prayers go unanswered. Cries of anguish are in vain. On this day, God is silent.

We started out in chaos and noise. The Liturgy of the Palms is at its best when things are noisy and a little confused, when we don’t quite know where to go. We are full of hope and excitement and anticipation. The whole city is in turmoil as our procession approaches, people everywhere asking, “Who is this? What is going on?” We answer, full of confidence and hope: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

That sentence alone speaks volumes: “prophet,” meaning someone who is sent from God. “From Nazareth in Galilee,” implying that this prophet is an outsider, that he is from the place where these rabble are from, a poor, rural, out of the way village, from people not treated kindly by the Roman legions and tax collectors, or by the Jewish establishment who are their enforcers. Our loud and crazy procession is full of hope for some, full of nuisance for the Romans who dislike disorder, full of threat for the Temple establishment who fear any force that might upset their dependent relationship with the violent and powerful Romans.

Who is this, the city in turmoil asks. This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee, we joyfully shout.

That is the beginning of the week. By the end, our shouts reveal that we have turned on this prophet: Crowds, swords, clubs, soldiers, civil and religious functionaries, bystanders, onlookers, and then, of course, even those who betrayed him: the sleeping disciples, Peter trying to hide in plain sight, Judas who signaled the arrest with a kiss. We continue to be a loud and chaotic bunch but now we have turned on this prophet we hailed as the One who came in the name of the Lord.

The one at the center of this story keeps still. He kneels in grief and prayer, when he listens intently for God to answer him. Nothing. No response. Does he really believe what he says later, that with but a word God would send legions of angels to rescue him? One by one, then all at once, his formerly loyal defenders fall away, the Romans keep their distance, not enforcing their laws, the Temple authorities push him toward death, the crowd turns from hope to cynicism, jeering and taunting.

The one at the center of the story has only one more thing to say, words that betray his fear that God has left this scene, left this world, abandoned him to powers of death. God has answered neither his prayers said in the dark of night nor in the middle of the day which is so dark that it mimics night. It must now be still around the cross, for at the moment of Jesus’ last, loud cry, an earthquake shakes the foundation of the Temple.

The crowds are gone, the fear is over; no one else will be killed on this day. Quietly a few of his followers ask for his body; the Romans let them take him – they have no dog in this fight. The body is wrapped, buried, the tomb securely sealed with a stone. Once again, night falls, and darkness and silence envelop us all.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Prophesy to the Bones

Lent 5-A
March 9, 2008

St. Paul’s

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130;
Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

The people were in trouble, big trouble.

The lived in exile, in Babylon, far from home, far from traditions, far from their past, far from all the landmarks of what made them a people – and even far from the God who called them “my people.” The powers of this empire had won, their gods had won, their armies had won, this empire of Babylon. The people who were once the people of Israel, with a temple in Jerusalem, a proud heritage, a powerful God, mighty to save, were there, stuck in this foreign place, crying to God from the depths of their soul – unsure if there even was a God anymore who would listen.

Before this passage from Ezekiel is a story of hope and resurrection, it is a story of despair. It is the story of the valley of dry bones, the story of the desert, of desolation. The empire – the powers of the human worst – had won; what more could the people formerly known as Israel do?

You know that place, we all know that place. That deserted, desert place, where we do not expect hope to come, that place we will put up with until we die.

For the people of Israel, though, there is another dimension to this place of exile. Their prophets, like Ezekiel, of today’s reading, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Amos and Hosea, have told the people that they have had a hand in this exile. The people of Israel have strayed from what God wants – and what God wants is not just attention, or worship, or obeisance. What God wants is what the people of Israel forgot: justice. I’m not making this up just because we have a soup kitchen in the basement – but what God wanted from the people of Israel that they forgot was justice: care for the poor, compassion for the orphan, food for the hungry, hospitality to the stranger, homes for the widows. God’s world was not to be one where some lived well and some languished. The people of Israel had gotten the equation out of whack, prophets like Ezekiel reminded them. Too many rich people, too many poor ones. Prophets like Ezekiel interpreted the political events of the time – the Babylonian empire invading Israel and carrying away the captives – as God’s judgment on his disobedient people. So imagine this: sent into the desert of exile, by one’s own God.

Ezekiel knows this. These people are mere bones, dried up, scattered, with no memory of what it meant to have flesh, no memory of what it meant to rise and walk as free people.

So imagine Ezekiel’s surprise to get the word from God: Mortal! Can these bones live? Ezekiel gives the only answer he knows: no.

And then God turns the whole thing around: get these bones up, breathe breath into them, bring them new life.

That is what a prophet does: brings the hope of God into a place that is desolate and bone-ridden and dried up, and says, you may not see anything here right now, but you will. God is in this place. God will do the impossible. What Ezekiel breathed into those dry bones was imagination – those bones could not have imagined anything but death, and then they were imagining what it would be like to be back in Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple, once again to be the people of God, the people of justice. They could imagine what it was like to be restored not only to life but to God’s favor.

That’s what the prophet does: offer a vision of hope where there is none. Where there is none. Nothing. Nada. Then God comes along and says, prophesy to the bones. Prophesy to the breath. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

Lazarus is dead. His sisters plead with Jesus, when he finally appears: Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.

For Jesus, Lazarus’ death is deeply disturbing, yes, but it is also something else. It is an opportunity for the glory of God to shine – it is an opportunity to show the whole world that God is doing a new thing – that God is still saying to those hopeless, hapless bones to get up and walk. You can hear Martha saying, yes, Lord, I have that faith. I know that Lazarus will rise in the resurrection on the last day.

WILL rise. The future. The last day.

Jesus changes the tense. That resurrection is here, and now, Jesus says. I AM the resurrection. Here. Now. Among you. These bones walk. If Lazarus can come back from exile, so can you. Your time in the desert is over. Your four days in the tomb are done. Lazarus, come out.

Of course, there are lot of powerful people who want Lazarus to stay dead. They want their slaves to stay in captivity. They want the poor to stay poor. The hungry should never have enough. There are people who will never deserve a decent home, there are children never entitled to a good education. It’s OK if the wells dry up for some people, if glaucoma robs others of their sight, if somebody’s house gets cold because they cannot afford $4 a gallon heating oil. There are a lot of people who will be a lot better off if Lazarus would just stay dead.

In the Gospel of John, this raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last straw. The powers that be begin to gather their forces for the final showdown with Jesus, the entrapment, the trial on trumped-up charges, the death-march to the cross, to the hill-top of dry bones. Over the next few weeks we’ll walk that way with Jesus, fearing the worst and seeing it come true. We’ll do it with these words echoing in our ears: I am the resurrection and I am the life. When we’ve retreated to our own tombs, to our own desert places of all fear and no hope, we’ll hear Jesus again: Lazarus, come out. Unbind him, and let him go.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lazarus, come out!

Yes, this is the Gospel reading for Sunday, March 9, the story of the raising of Lazarus from his tomb. Yes, I am still writing my sermon, so yes, more on this text later.

LAST WEEK, when the Gospel story was about Jesus giving sight to the man born blind, I did a power point illustrated sermon. All the Gospel texts this Lent are long ones, sometimes better understood if read in parts, or if I illustrated them as I did last week. I found a wonderful variety of depictions of the story of the giving of sight to the man born blind, pictures you, too, can find on the internet. Just do a Google Images search, and wonderful things appear -- images that might make you stop and think, might give you another interpretation of the text, another idea where it might lead you deeper into the mystery of Christ.

I'm going to put up a few links to other blogs -- see over there on the right -- that use art and imagery to expand our ideas of the texts, of the words, of our faith. Stories bring pictures to our imaginations. See how artists over the centuries have brought those imaginations to light.